|Christmas Card Display: the observed and the observer|
Late 19th century and early 20th century images depicting Christmas in New York from the Library of Congress collection can be divided (roughly) into two types: those showing activities related to charities (Salvation Army, soup kitchens, orphanages, et al) and those showing shoppers on the street.
|Children looking into Macy’s Department Store window, New York City, c. 1914|
In relation to the latter subject, the camera’s point of view is that of the observer–observing those who are themselves observing. The camera’s subject is the people on the street who have paused to look at window displays and are strolling along the street “window shopping.”
|Window Shoppers, NYC|
“We thank you for stopping — for stopping to look at our display of merchandise We hope that it pleased you, and if you are anxious for further information, come inside. If you are not ready to buy, thanks anyway for stopping,” reads the card.
The practice of displaying goods in shop windows for passers-by to view was an invention of the mid-19th century. Harry Gordon Selfridge (of Chicago’s Marshall Field Department Store and later founder of Selfridges in London) is often touted as the first to use large window displays.
It took time before many merchants recognized the valuable advertisement that a store could broadcast through a window pane, but once they did, window displays became ever more prominent and elaborate.
Soon, they would even be lit at night.
|Printer’s Ink, April 10, 1907|
In 1908, a New York merchant commented on the value of the night shop window, noting:
“You ask me what there is about a store window that makes a woman irresistibly turn for inspection,”
A.G. Sten continued. “I will tell you. The store window is a woman’s great ‘reminder.’ It recalls to her some need, past or future.”
|The great “reminder,” detail, window shoppers|
James McCutcheon’s Department Store (pictured above) was located along the aptly named “Ladies Mile” on Fifth Avenue. Its large windows seemed to open up to stage settings, where a world of dreams was laid out. You too can dream about some of McCutcheon’s erstwhile products, a few of which are now in the Metropolitan Museum. See one here.
|Bird’s-eye view of shoppers on 6th Avenue, 1910|
While the window shopper could lose herself in fantasy or reverie, she could, of course, also stir feelings of insufficiency, especially if she did not have money to fulfill the “need” she recognized (or created) through window shopping.
That feeling, that pit in her stomach, was now also a reminder of an absence that she might never have recognized without seeing these displays. This was, of course, part of the psychological dance prompted by a society based on consumption.
|A stage setting of the play “What Life Should Be,” aka a window display|
To buy something that somehow could help make life better, easier, happier, prettier, nicer, cleaner, etc. is an act of hope. And to deny that purchase left that emptiness. The longing would remain.
In his 1900 novel, Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser perfectly captures this idea. In a visit to a New York department store, Carrie Meeber finds herself:
As techniques for enticing shoppers into stores through window displays became ever more sophisticated, numerous “experts” on the subject of window displays emerged, giving out advice to merchants. See, for example, “Why Some Windows Fail to Attract,” in The Underwear & Hosiery Review, September 1921).
|Street Scene, with shadow of photographer, foreground|
These experts reveal the fact that the shopper herself was now quietly being observed. Those who hoped to entice her into a purchase were mapping her behavior, deploying the newly emerging “science” of measuring and orchestrating the habits of consumers, based in part on psychoanalysis and brought to famous use by New Yorker Edward Bernays (who was loosely related to Sigmund Freud).
In the photograph above, the fact that shoppers were now being keenly observed is suggested in the visibility of the photographer’s shadow in the foreground. The woman looks at the photographer, peering out from under her broad brimmed hat, catching the act of observation. (And in fact, in all the images here, the act of observation is present, even if it is not recorded within the image itself).
|Cards: One Cent each, East 14th Street|
In the photograph above, the card seller (and the boy behind him) look into the camera lens. The card seller stands in front of his display and confronts the photographer with a steady gaze, as if to ask, what are looking at? As a street merchant, the card seller has no store window, per se, but his method of confronting potential buyers on the street by stopping them in their tracks was a precursor to the modern window display.
Behold what awaits you!
Only a thin pane of glass separates you, the window display suggests, from all your heart’s desire!
|“They’re watching you,” Bergdorf Goodman, NYC, 1947.|
Today, the window display has become ever more sophisticated psychologically. We are now confronted everywhere by advertisements, screens, images, flashing promises, and reminders of unfilled needs.
|Lord and Taylor window, NYC, 2007, Christmas, old school.|
The window display is now a kind of meta-display, referring to an earlier time (above) or stripping down the “image” (below) to serve us not a Christmas goose, but a dazzling and amorphous reminder of something we just might need….now or in the future.
|Just This: A Modern Reminder, Tiffany and Co. Window, NYC.|